WASHINGTON — The Department of Interior denied any wrongdoing Monday after documents surfaced showing government staffers were forced to scramble to accommodate requests from Secretary Ryan Zinke's wife as she accompanied him on trips outside of Washington D.C.
Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist with good-governance watchdog Public Citizen, told Politico it's not illegal for spouses to tag along during official trips as long as the government doesn't pay for the additional expenses. But it can be an ethically gray area, depending on the circumstances.
"Spousal travel, especially when paid for by the spouse, suggests that the trip may have less to do with official duties and more resembles a family vacation partially paid for by taxpayers," he said.
The documents, which include travel manifests and staff emails, were released Monday by left-leaning, Montana-based Western Values Project and were first reported on by Politico. They show that Lolita Zinke created a list of people she wanted to be invited to a conservative town hall forum in Santa Barbara, California in April. The Washington Post reported Lolita Zinke owns a home in Santa Barbara and accompanied her husband through the state that month.
"She's expecting some of them to bring plus ones and also her list is not yet final," Ryan Zinke's special assistant, Caroline Boulton, wrote in an email. "She's said that she doesn't have emails for them all since many of them have been personally told about the event, but I wanted you to have the list!"
About a month later, staffers overhauled travel plans on a trip in Alaska after they learned Lolita Zinke wanted to attend a dinner with the state's governor, Bill Walker, rather than return to Washington as planned.
"UGH! We have all kinds of planes, trains and automobiles manifests to now scramble with," Russell Roddy, who directs scheduling for the Interior Department, wrote to several colleagues in a May 27 email.
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"These emails show that the leadership at the Department of Interior treats basic ethical standards like an inconvenience," Chris Saeger, executive director of the Western Values Project, wrote in a statement Monday. "If Secretary Zinke is willing to be so sloppy with something as elementary as this, then god only knows how they're handling big decisions about energy and public lands behind closed doors."
The Interior Department said Lolita Zinke pays her own way when she accompanies her husband on trips, and the travel is approved by ethics officials in advance.
Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said the department "incurred no expenses due to Mrs. Zinke's presence" at the meal with Walker, and she called the Western Values Project "a partisan hatchet group run by Democratic campaign staffers."
Lolita Zinke is the campaign chair for Montana GOP candidate Troy Downing, who is challenging Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester. She also volunteered on President Trump's campaign.
The Washington Post reported she has frequently accompanied her husband at official meetings, including one in April with California Gov. Jerry Brown, an outing that same month to California's Channel Islands and a congressional delegation trip to Norway, Greenland and Alaska.
Meanwhile, the Interior Department's internal watchdog said last week that Ryan Zinke has failed to keep complete records of his taxpayer-financed travel — hampering an investigation into his use of private charter flights for government business.
Zinke has brushed off news reports that he took at least three private flights costing taxpayers a total of $20,000 since taking office in March, saying all his travel is ethical and went through proper due diligence.